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A New Generation of Shanghainese

It is midnight in Shanghai, and on the stage of a small, stylish club in the quaintly neoned French Concession neighborhood, a spiky-haired, 20-year-old trumpet player named Feng Yu Chan steps into the spotlight. Dressed in a punkish T-shirt and pegged jeans, he sets his fingers dancing over the valves of his instrument. His lanky body arches dramatically as he puffs out his cheeks and blows soaring notes that ricochet around the scale, in spot-on mimicry of classic bebop. The other band members--two Americans, a dreadlocked Canadian, and a couple of Chinese--nod their heads in approval.

The audience at the Cotton Club tonight is a mix of homesick Western expats and groovy locals wearing lacy black dresses, sharply cut jackets, and spread-collar shirts. No one seems to mind that the band's playing is rather derivative--its very existence here is in itself inspiring.

For decades, China had strict laws about the importation of Western culture, and playing jazz in public was tantamount to a criminal act. But in recent years restrictions have been eased, and jazz is now finding a new audience among the progressive youth of Shanghai. At clubs across the city--such as the ramshackle George V (nicknamed "George the Woo"; woo means "five" in Chinese); the venerable Peace Hotel (a big-band hot spot during the 1940's and 50's); the glitzy Full House II; the cozy Blues & Jazz Garden; and the sleek, newly renovated Portman Ritz-Carlton Bar--bebop, swing, and blues are all the rage. And on side streets near outdoor markets, flinty-eyed wannabe tough guys sell pirated CD's of Wayne Shorter, Chet Baker, and Herbie Hancock.

"The freedom and fluidity of jazz remind me of Chinese painting," Feng says during a break between sets at the Cotton Club. "The first time I played jazz was with a Chinese keyboardist. I didn't know the music, but I listened to him and learned. Now I don't think a lot when I'm on stage. I play for a feeling."

Wei Hui, 25-year-old author of the youth-quaking Chinese best-seller Shanghai Baby, is a Cotton Club regular. "I like to sit back, drink wine, smoke cigars, and listen to jazz. It's sexy and decadent," she says. "Jazz helps us remember the good old times in Shanghai, the days before Mao."

After all, jazz is not entirely new to this city. In the 1930's some 1,200 jazz bands were performing in Shanghai. After World War II, American GI's helped keep the scene alive, mingling with Shanghainese locals at velvety clubs like Ciros, the Airline, Metropole, and the Parliament Ballroom.

It's a time that septuagenarian David Peng remembers well. "I had a British girlfriend whose father worked for the embassy here," recounts Peng, a slender, dapper man with a hard little nut of a face. "We used to go out every night to hear music, and I was recognized as being a good dancer. Bands would hire me to dance onstage. Then I learned the trumpet and began to play." He fishes out a small photo album and points to a few shots of himself as a young man, wailing away on his horn with the same gusto that Feng Yu Chan displays today.

But all that screeched to a halt once Mao came to power in 1949. "Suddenly all the clubs were forced to close," Peng says. The music survived only at gatherings in musicians' homes and in underground clubs. "I kept playing," says Peng, "but government agents caught me performing at a private party. I was interned in the countryside, forced to do farm labor from 1958 until 1979--just because I played American music."

These days Peng no longer plays the trumpet--his lips and gums are in no condition for it--and the beautiful British girlfriend, well, she left the country soon after the Communists took over. Yet Peng expresses surprisingly little bitterness. In fact, he still indulges in a bit of singing and dancing. Tonight he's at the Railway Hotel ballroom to sit in for a few numbers with a dinner-jacketed, all-Chinese orchestra. The music is the kind of schmaltzy, pre-bebop jazz that was popular in American postwar dance halls. Out on the sprawling hardwood floor Shanghainese couples waltz and tango beneath a disco orb--but they all stand at rapt attention when David Peng hits the stage.

In a rich tenor--and in English far more perfect in song than in speech--Peng croons "As Time Goes By" and "I've Got You Under My Skin," his eyes closed, shimmying and handling the mike like a pro. Each song is capped off with a finely executed soft-shoe routine that brings down the house. Aglow from his performance, Peng shakes hands with the musicians before grabbing a cab for the quick ride to the Cotton Club, where a late set is starting soon.

Expatriate Matthew Harding--a stocky, perpetually smiling multi-instrumentalist from Salt Lake City, and a co-founder of the Cotton Club--is widely acknowledged as the instigator of Shanghai's latest jazz boom. But ironically, it was a Chinese club owner who turned the American on to the music. "When I came to Shanghai in 1996 I was basically a folk singer who'd spent three years studying Chinese. And the music scene here was mostly metal bands playing Guns 'n' Roses covers." One refuge from the Asian Axl Roses was the Blues & Jazz Garden, a mellow, chalet-style club owned by the actor Ling Dong Fu. Ling had accumulated one of Shanghai's most extensive collections of jazz CD's. "I heard Ling's bebop albums," Harding recalls, "and decided this is the stuff I should be playing." In 1997 Harding and his partner Tony Huang opened the Cotton Club. The free admission policy, good acoustics, decent martinis and Manhattans, and proximity to the Sunshine Restaurant (a late-night diner where cheeseburgers are a specialty) made the club a hit among expats and hip Chinese. Harding has since sold his share to his partner, friend, and fellow musician Greg Smith, who leads the house band through a rousing set of bebop and soulful blues six nights a week.

"Right now, jazz is more alive here than it is in the States," Harding says, adding that the music is not as incongruous as one might think. "Shanghai has a propensity for elegance. Jazz is a natural fit."

As the band resumes its set, Greg Smith tries convincing David Peng to join in for a few numbers. Peng demurs. The Cotton Club is too loud, too young, too raucous, he explains; he'd feel out of his element. And perhaps it would be too emotional to perform twice in a single night. "When I'm up there singing, I can't help thinking about the old days of Shanghai," Peng sighs, no doubt remembering the pompadoured men, the women in their high-necked dresses, the unamplified music, and the sheer glamour of a city dubbed the Paris of the Orient before it was turned upside down by cruel politics.

Later that night, on his way home, Peng passes a small park where a boom box has been set up on a bench. Half a dozen Chinese couples have transformed the asphalt into an alfresco ballroom. In their own, surely inadvertent way, they make the simple act of close dancing under the stars seem like a powerful political statement. The tape they're playing is a mix of suave tango and cocktail jazz--just the kind of music Mao would have despised.

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